Remembering the Ring of Steel that once surrounded Belfast city centre

Fifty years have passed since a security cordon known as the Ring of Steel was put up around Belfast city centre in response to the IRA’s escalating bomb threat.
Ann Street security barrier in 1984. Picture by Martin NangleAnn Street security barrier in 1984. Picture by Martin Nangle
Ann Street security barrier in 1984. Picture by Martin Nangle

No design drawings for the structure have survived and finding information on the ad hoc aesthetic constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in stages over 1972 proved difficult for a team of researchers who are staging an event related to the security barriers.

Theatre company Kabosh, in collaboration with Professor Kate Catterall from the University of Texas, will present ‘Drawing the Ring of Steel’ this coming Thursday.

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Taking place at each of the Ring of Steel’s former main entrance and exit points into and out of the city centre – Donegall Place, Royal Avenue, Castle Street and High Street – this free 12-hour theatrical event aims to facilitate storytelling across communities and between generations.

The Ring of Steel at Callender Street in 1976The Ring of Steel at Callender Street in 1976
The Ring of Steel at Callender Street in 1976

James Bamford, a freelance consultant designing and producing maps, got involved in the project after hearing a talk from Kate about the security infrastructure that surrounded Belfast city centre during the Troubles.

He said: “I didn’t know much about this and was interested in finding out more.

“As part of the talk, Kate took us on a tour to see what remains of the ring. We got talking and she mentioned her project and how it would be great to have a mapping interface showing what was where, when.”

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He continued: “I think that the Ring of Steel is a really interesting phenomenon, not just in what it represented at the time, but also in how it disappeared and is remembered by those who were there.

Security gate at Castle Lane in 1974Security gate at Castle Lane in 1974
Security gate at Castle Lane in 1974

“From a built heritage and urban geography perspective, it’s quite a unique thing that although quite recent, belongs to a totally different time.”

He added: “I spent a lot of time making phone calls and submitting FOI requests – to organisations like PSNI, MOD, NI Office, Belfast City Council, academics, local historical organisations – and had no joy at all. It was like a barrier came up, ironically, and this was still a complicated topic that none of the authorities were prepared to discuss.

“The only lead I did manage to come across in my many attempts to get info from local authorities in Belfast was Robert Heslip - Tourism, Culture, Heritage and Arts Officer with Belfast City Council.

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“Robert was very helpful and pointed me towards the National Archives where I did find most of what I needed.

“I felt like I’d stuck gold when I walked into the reading room and the files I’d ordered were piled high on the table.

“I used the British Newspaper Archive to find relevant press articles and I also managed to source some great material from local photographers who were active at the time.

“I spent time walking around the city centre getting a feel for how it was all organised and spotting the slight remnants that still exist – holes in walls, shreds of wire, bollards that have replaced gates, etc.

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“This gave me some insight into how Belfast city centre is still somehow affected by the ring, how it sort of echoes still today in the subtle divisions between what was outside, and what was within.”

Professor Kate Catterall was born and raised in Belfast and has direct personal experience of the Ring of Steel.

She said: “For over 20 years during the conflict, the series of gates, fences, turnstiles, search stations and blocked roads known as the Ring of Steel became an increasingly prominent feature of the urban environment in Belfast.

“Staffed by both civilian searchers and armed security personnel, the cordon had a significant impact on the daily lives of all who passed in and out of the city centre every day, to work, shop or socialise.

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“Ongoing development since the 1998 Peace Agreement has erased much of the evidence of the ‘Ring of Steel’, and only traces remain today to show that it ever existed. This work aims to create a record of what was a singular and largely unrecorded episode in Belfast’s recent history.”

Mapper James added: “I do know from talking to Kate that she has put so much work into making [this event] happen and that she is hoping to capture memories from people and create a sort of archive of what life was like then.

“I imagine it might bring out some expressions of feeling for this difficult period, and maybe serve as a kind of cathartic experience for the city and people who remember it.”

On Thursday, at each of the four ‘Drawing the Ring of Steel’ sites, performers will redraw the lines of the security checkpoints and barriers and enact choreographed search motions.

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Other performers in 1970s dress will interact with the public asking them questions about their memories or knowledge of the ‘Ring of Steel’ and collecting their stories.

Stories which are recorded from audience members on the day of the piece will be transcribed, reviewed, anonymised and featured on the project website

Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of Kabosh, said: “This event aims to highlight how far Belfast’s city centre has developed from those times, into an inclusive shared space.”

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Ben Lowry